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Forgiveness – Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5778

09/16/2017 04:22:35 PM


Decades ago the Nazi hunter and author Simon Wiesenthal wrote The Sunflower. It’s a scenario of an S.S. officer on his deathbed begging for forgiveness from a Holocaust victim.  The officer was sincere in his regret, but the victim could only offer him silence. Weisenthal ponders, “…Ought I to have forgiven him? 

Today the world demands that we forgive and forget heinous crimes committed against us. It urges that we draw a line, and close the account as if nothing had ever happened…”

Wiesenthal challenges all of us who are not in this difficult position to consider the same question: can we forgive? To him, “The crux of the matter is forgiveness. Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of. But forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision.”

We tend to think it’s harder to ask for forgiveness than it is to forgive. Yet even after we have technically granted forgiveness, we realize that a residual pain lingers. And that we cannot trust again or that a relationship has inherently changed.

Forgiveness also means giving up one’s superiority. As long as I bear a grudge I am better than you — you hurt me, you acted badly, and I am more moral and kinder than you are. But if I forgive you, truly forgive you, then I must restore moral parity; I am no better than you. We are equal again.

In that way forgiveness is dangerous business. To forgive someone who wronged us is to forgo justice or vengeance.

Particularly someone who wronged us seriously and deeply.

We have generational bonds even with Jews we have never met that transcend time and space solely because of the Holocaust.

To forgive is to risk betraying our notions of family, honor and pride. We risk betraying the cult of the dead, and the dire and absolute expression of respect it demands.

Maimonides, also known as Rambam, teaches, “…When someone who has sinned asks for forgiveness, one should forgive with a complete heart and a willing soul. Even if someone pained him and profoundly sinned against him…” It’s not easy to have a complete heart and a willing soul, especially when someone has profoundly hurt you.

I am always struck when people tell me that they simply cannot forgive someone for an offense or an insult, even in this season of forgiveness. I’m struck when I feel that way myself with the forgiveness I need to request, and need to offer. It’s almost as if there’s a mental list: I can forgive this but not that, this one but not that one…

There’s another statement of Maimonides that speaks directly to the Wiesenthal case. Rambam offers that there are “obstructions that make it impossible for the person who commits them to repent completely.”

One of them is “the person who maligns the many without mentioning a specific person from whom he can request forgiveness.” Wiesenthal’s fictional Nazi wanted forgiveness from the many. And that can never be granted. There is no one specific person to ask who could possibly forgive for this collective, tragic wrong-doing.

But what about us? We might watch our gossip against individuals but not hesitate to malign an entire community. We can ask forgiveness from a person. We cannot ask forgiveness from a community. This should give us pause when we’re about to judge, stereotype, or dismiss a group who think or act differently than we do. Particularly when our country is so politically divided.

Forgiveness is a volitional act. We have a choice when we are in the position to forgive completely. Maimonides encourages us to make a positive, compassionate choice. But when we malign a group, we cannot hope for complete forgiveness. It’s best then to be vigilant with our restraint, as Eleanor Roosevelt wisely advised: “To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.

But in all honestly, that’s a flowery way of looking at forgiveness, even if it’s tough.

Let’s study a poem together… How Divine is forgiveness? (Marge Piercy)

It’s a nice concept
but what’s under the sculptured draperies?
We forgive when we don’t really care
because what was done to us brought unexpected harvest, as I always try to explain
to the peach trees as I prune them hard;
to the cats when I shove pills against
the Gothic vaults of their mouths 

We forgive those who betrayed us
years later because memory has rotted through like something left out in the weather battered clean then littered dirty
in the rain, chewed by mice and beetles, frozen and baked and stripped by the wind till it is unrecognizable, corpse
or broken machine, something long useless. 

We forgive those whom their own machinations have sufficiently tangled, enshrouded,
the fly who bit us to draw blood and who
hangs now a gutted trophy in a spider’s 

airy larder; more exactly, the friend whose habit of lying has immobilized him at last like a dog trapped in a cocoon
of fishing line and barbed hooks. 

We forgive those we firmly love
because anger hurts, a coal that burns
and smolders still scorching the tissues inside, blistering wherever it touches
so that finally it is to ease our own pain
that we bury the hot clinkers in a mound
of caring, suffocate the sparks with promises, drown them in tears, reconciling. 

We forgive mostly not from strength
but through imperfections, for memory wears transparent as glass with the pattern washed off, till we stare past what injured us. We forgive because we too have done
the same to others easy as a mudslide;
or because anger is a fire that must be fed and we are too tired to rise and haul a log. 

Piercy’s observation is truly insightful. For one thing, her poem assumes one of the most irritating points about forgiveness: that sinner doesn’t even think or know they need to apologize. But she also highlights another point: That there are very few reasons to think self-righteously about forgiveness. Often times we passively forgive people for any number of reasons: because they’ll thank us later, because we can’t remember why we were offended in the first place, or because their fall will be by their own hands, or because we just don’t have the energy any more to be angry with them.

It seems like the only people we sincerely forgive, “with mounds of love,” are the ones who we really care about. While that’s sweet, it’s some ways is also self-serving.

Social media is filled with inspirational memes about forgiveness:

That we should forgive, that it will help us, if not the person who wronged us.  Although I’m not entirely sure.  Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean the cleaning of the slate. But it certainly implies that what was done can be repaired, or at least moved on from – but what if it can’t?

Sometimes the pain is really just too deep to flush out of our souls. Additionally, we all view ourselves with a certain amount of integrity- probably fueled by our super-ego. We strive to avoid compromising it. Every time we forgive, part of our integrity wonders, “I’ve been wronged and hurt, and they want me to forgive that? What does this say about me?”

Nonetheless to forgive is also to step out of the narratives that define us, and begin to define our own narrative. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, calls forgiveness “the most compelling testimony to human freedom. It is the refusal to be defined by circumstance.”

A painful past might be worth holding on to… But to forgive is to hold onto the future more tightly than the past.

I wonder, how do we know when to hold onto the past, and when to reach for the future?

This season always brings deep conversations with it. Over the past month, I’ve been able to talk with many of you about your experiences with forgiveness. Like any community we are mixture of stories. At the very least it is reassuring that people strive forgiveness in ways that enable them to: -strengthen their relationship with friends, family and even in-laws; -accept the weaknesses and mistakes of others in order move forward with their lives; -And keep hope alive for future reconciliation.

Consider this story from a recent NY Times article that seems to address both approaches. It takes place in Fort Smith, Arkansas- a place that has: two country clubs, several golf courses, a Talbots and a symphony orchestra, wealth and poverty, and a literal monument to first white child born there. The city’s residents are largely middle and lower-middle class. Some homes cost more than $1 million, but a typical home is around $113,000.

It’s a mixture of the Old and New South. But now it’s population is diverse, serving as a home to Muslims, Vietnamese, Indian and Latino families.

The incident involves a young man named Abraham Davis who was 20 at the time he committed the crime. Abraham was a poor, high-school drop-out, with nothing better to do than cause trouble. In October of 2016, while drunk and angry, Davis and friend drove to the local Al Salam mosque and vandalized it with swastikas and curses.

Abraham was eventually caught and brought to jail for his involvement. For Abraham, jail became a dividing line between the mistakes of his past and some unknown future.

While awaiting his trial date he wrote a letter to the mosque’s leadership. In his letter he wrote: “Dear Masjid Al Salam Mosque, I know you guys probably don’t want to hear from me at all but I really want to get this to y’all. I’m so sorry about having a hand in vandalizing your mosque. It was wrong and y’all did not deserve to have that done to you. I hurt y’all and I am haunted by it. And even after all this you still forgave me. You are much better people than I. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, and that is honestly really scary. But I just wouldn’t want to keep going on without trying to make amends. I wish I could undo the pain I helped to cause. I used to walk by your mosque a lot and ask myself, ‘why I would do that?’ I don’t even hate Muslims. Or anyone for that matter. All in all, I just want to say I’m sorry.”

The Muslim community was obviously outraged and saddened by the vandalism.  Al Salam community had found a home in America and identified as America. This incident told them they weren’t. But Louay Nassri, one of the founders of the mosque, was moved by the gesture. He made it clear that he did not want to press charges, and strongly opposed a felony charge for Abraham. In Nassri’s own words: “We did not want this to destroy his life. And the prosecution is asking for more than what we want.”

Other mosque founder believed the vandalism was one of the best things to happen to the Muslims of Fort Smith. The crime encouraged their partners in faith to reach out. And it allowed the Muslim community to reveal themselves — to say, “We are your doctors, your accountants and your used-car salesmen.” They now also have a relationship with the synagogue in town. And several members have begun speaking to local audiences about Islam.

The community at the Al Salam mosque knows how hard it is to get a second chance in America. Being Muslim in a post 9-11 America made it difficult to get a second chance. And very easy to be stereotyped a terrorist, without the slightest possibility of being anything but. Yet the founders of Al Salam helped arrange jobs for the young men involved in the vandalism at their own businesses. And it didn’t end there. The founders went to court with the boys when no one else would. They helped one boy buy a washing machine, and paid for the other to bury a relative.

After Abraham was finally released from jail he wrote on facebook: “I just want to say thank you to all those who have been supporting me and a big thanks to the guys at the mosque who have been supportive and helpful and I pray blessings over them.”

The next day, he saw a response from a peer his age, named Wasim- the son of one of the founders of the mosque. The response read: “Bro move on with life. We forgave you the first time you apologized. Don’t let that mistake bring you down… We love you and want you to be the best example in life. We don’t hold grudges against anybody!”

Shanah tovah.

Tue, September 17 2019 17 Elul 5779